Sunday, May 31, 2009

Savage Wolves and Perverse Doctrines

In the reading today from the book of the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul warns us that there will be times of trouble for the Church, with attacks that will come from without and from within. The attackers will be, as he calls them, “savage wolves.” As the Church grew, and people’s lives were transformed, so that they no longer lived according to the ways of the world, but rather according to the way of life in the kingdom, those who ruled on Earth perceived the Christians as a threat to their own power and authority. They tried to suppress the Church, to silence the proclamation of the Gospel of our salvation in Jesus Christ – and when they felt it was necessary to accomplish these things, they did not hesitate to imprison, torture and even kill those who by word and by deed proclaimed their loyalty to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.

St. Paul also warns that there is another source of danger, another form of attack from these “wolves in human form.” He says that there will come people from within the Church herself who will proclaim perverse doctrines, and will seek followers for themselves, whom they will lead away from the true Faith in schism and heresy and even paganism.

One such teacher and leader was a priest named Arius. He didn’t necessarily start out with the intention of deceiving the faithful in his care; and it is possible that his start down the road to heresy began with the best of intentions: to glorify God. But the teaching he proclaimed began to make it seem as if the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God Who took on our nature and came to save us, was not quite God. The controversy this stirred up among the faithful led to a decision by his bishop to stop teaching this about the Son of God. Arius responded by fleeing from that bishop, going to another diocese, where he continued teaching as he had before. It wasn’t long before this was causing trouble again; and as others spread his teaching throughout the Church, the turmoil was spreading. The Church was in danger of being torn apart by the struggle between those who sided with Arius and those who opposed him.

At the time this problem was developing, the Emperor Constantine, who, upon becoming the Emperor, ended the persecutions of the Church with the issuance of the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D. He was laboring to unify an Empire that had been divided, and he looked to the Church to be the nucleus around which everyone could be brought together. The last thing he wanted was a division in the body to which he looked to bring unity to the realm; and so, in the year 325 A.D. he summoned the bishops of the Church to his vacation city of Nicaea, not far from his new capital in Constantinople. When they opened their deliberations, he charged them, among things, with resolving the controversy that was the result of what Arius had been teaching.

When this meeting – the first Ecumenical Council – completed its work, they had, by a unanimous vote, declared that what Arius had been teaching was a heresy. They also declared what is the true Faith in a summary form. That summary, with a small addition that was added at the Second Ecumenical Council, is used in every Divine Liturgy of the Church, and in our private prayers as well. We call it the Nicene Creed; and it teaches us about God, the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and about the Church. This is why we mark today as the celebration of the holy Fathers of the First Council.

The warning that St. Paul gave to the Church leaders with whom he met in Ephesus is a warning that we should heed today. The attacks upon the Church have been many – there is certainly no need to explain this to those of us in the Russian Church! Other false teachers have come from within the Church; and there are some today, and there will certainly be more in the future. What, then, are we supposed to do? How do we respond to the warning St. Paul has given to us?

What we must do, brothers and sisters, is to become so familiar with the Orthodox faith, and the Orthodox way of life, that we will immediately recognize when we hear something contrary to the faith being taught or discussed. To do this, we must be reading and learning from the holy Bible, the teachings of the Fathers, and the lives of the saints. We must pray and fast; we must give from what God has given to us; we must attend the worship services of the Church as often as possible; and we must live in such a way that the life of Christ will be seen in everything that we say or do. If doing these things, if living the life of our Lord given to us when we were baptized is seen by the world as a threat – and it is being seen as a threat in many ways in this land, in this city, today – so be it. We do not seek power in this world; and we will obey the powers of this world, except when doing so will cause us to depart from being the servants of God and the disciples of Christ. We do not seek power in this world, but we do desire the overthrow of the rule of the prince of this world, the enemy of our salvation.

May God grant us the grace and wisdom and strength to grow knowledgeable in the Orthodox faith and to live the life of His kingdom in this world, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Healing Those Born Blind

Christ is risen!

If we weren't blind, we'd be able to see signs of the presence of God all around us. If we weren't blind, we would look around in church, and see the saints and the angels gathered to worship with us. The saints have seen wondrous things. Young children, in their innocence, sometimes see angels close at hand. We might see them, too – but we can't, because we're blind.

Part of the problem is that we think we can see. The fact that we can see the material world around us using the eyes of our physical bodies fools us into thinking we are not blind. That's unfortunate: We aren't going to ask to be healed, because we don't know that something is wrong with us.

The man we meet in the reading today from the Gospel according to St. John the Theologian knows that he is blind. He knows he has a problem. His problem is solved when our Lord finds him, and gives the man his sight. The way in which this miracle is performed can teach us in several ways.

Think back to the account of the creation found in the book of Genesis. "In the beginning," it says, "God created the heavens and the earth." How does God create? He said, "Let there be light"; and suddenly there was light. Throughout the entire act of creation, God speaks into being all that exists, with one significant exception. When it comes time for the creation of humanity, God says, "Let us make man in our own image"; and rather than giving a command, as He had given to the water, that it might bring forth fish and all the creatures who live in the sea, and as He had commanded the air, that it be filled with birds and all flying creatures, and as He had commanded the earth to bring forth living creatures, in making mankind God formed Adam from the dust of the earth. In a way, we might even say that God got His hands dirty when He made us; He was actively and deliberately involved in making us who we are; and having formed a body, He breathed into it the breath of life, and man became a living soul.

Now we come back to the man born blind, and the miracle of his receiving his sight. How does our Lord Jesus Christ work this miracle? He takes once more the dust of the earth, and moistens it from His own spittle to make it a paste, which He then applies to the man's eyes. He then commands the man to go and wash away the mud in the pool at Siloam. When he obeys the command, his sight is given to him.

Brothers and sisters, those of us who have been baptized were not merely blind. We were dead. Yet, in our baptism, we were buried with Christ in His death; and, raised up out of the water of the font, we were raised with Him Who has arisen from the grave, trampling down death by His death. So, as the blind man washed in the pool of Siloam, we have been washed in the water of baptism. We need to understand this if we are to see truly, if we are to see with new eyes, if we are to see more than just the material world, for we who are made in the image and after the likeness of God do not live only in the material world – we live in the realm of the spirits as well.

There were two parts, two activities in the healing of the man born blind. The first was the act of our Lord, Who made the dust of the earth into a paste with His spittle, and then this being put on the man's eyes. The second part was the action of the man going to the pool, and washing himself there. Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the miracle of His Incarnation, has taken for Himself a material body, made of the dust of the earth, just as we have been formed of the dust. It is the same body in which He lived, and worked miracles. It is the same body in which He Who as God cannot die, suffered death on our behalf, to set us free from death. It is the same body with which He rose from the grave to a life that has no end. It is the same body with which He ascended into heaven, and in which He is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. He shares Himself with us, in order that we might become like Him. Having been washed, we must go forth in faith we must do our part, we must live according to the way of life we learn in the Church: praying, as did our Lord Jesus Christ; fasting, as our Lord did; struggling to overcome the passions by which we are tempted to sin, as the Lord did during His forty day fast in the desert, following His baptism. We must give from all that we have, and give of ourselves, as our Lord gave Himself for us all on the Cross.

When we pray; when we fast; when we struggle; when we give; when we love; when we are humble; when we forgive – then we are doing our part, as the man born blind did his part by going to wash in Siloam's pool. By desiring and working to show the life of Christ in our own lives, we are being transformed; and one day, perhaps even in this life, we will see God, and the rich life of the spiritual world of the saints and angels who are all around us. We have already been healed. May God grant us grace, so that we may see!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Finding Our Place in the Story: Samaritans? Or Jews?

We are all familiar with the encounter our Lord has at the well where He meets the Samaritan woman, as we heard today in the reading from the Gospel according to St. John the Theologian. He asks her for water; she asks Him how it is that a Jew asks for water from a Samaritan; and through the course of the conversation our Lord reveals Himself, first by knowing her sins, and her situation, and then saying explicitly, when she has expressed a true faith in God, and that the Messiah God had promised would come, that He is the One they have been waiting for. In response, she goes into the village and urges the residents there to come and meet someone who knew all that she had ever done. As a result, many more come to believe with her that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One of God.

This is the main part of the story; but the Fathers tell us that there is more to be found, if we will look for it. One aspect – the background, if you will, of this story, or its context – is the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans, which serves as the springboard to the encounter of our Lord with the Samaritan woman. As always, we need to be alert to our own part in the story, for, when we can discern this, we are much more likely to grasp more of the lesson we are meant to derive from the holy Scriptures.

The Jews disliked, even despised, the Samaritans, and held them in contempt. The Samaritans had fallen into idolatry, but then repented, and returned to the worship of God, while claiming to have preserved the faith while the Jews had changed it while in exile in Babylon. The Jews rejected the claims of the Samaritans that they were also of the house of Israel, and had no dealings with them. Indeed, when our Lord sent His disciples out on their missionary journeys, He told them not to enter the cities of the Samaritans, but to go only to the Jews.

From this, we might think that the hatred and the rejection of the Samaritans was the right thing to do. Yet we find our Lord at a well outside a Samaritan village, and He does not hesitate to speak with a woman of that village, to lead her, and those whom she will bring to Him, to belief in Him and so to their salvation. Consider also, that the man who was on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho and was robbed and beaten and left for dead was not helped by one of his own people, but rather by the Good Samaritan. Remember that, of the ten lepers who were healed, only one returned to give thanks to the Lord, and he was a Samaritan.

St. John Chrysostom points out that whenever our Lord came to the Jews, they rejected Him; while the Gentiles, when they saw Him passing by, were drawn to Him, and asked Him to stay with them. The Jews were envious of Him, and angry; while the Gentiles believed Him, reverenced Him, and obeyed Him. When the Jews questioned our Lord, they did so to try to trick Him or to trap Him; while the Samaritan woman asks Him questions with respect, and with a desire to learn. The Jews did not want to hear Him, and tried to prevent others from coming to Him; while she, having heard, brought others to Him as well.

Do you know our place in the story? The Jews were the "chosen people" and the ones with whom God had made His covenant. The Jews were the ones to whom God had given His law. The Jews were the ones to whom the prophets were sent. The Jews were the ones who had been given the knowledge of the Messiah Who was to come and set free the people of God. Of whom can this be said today? The Church, of course! We are the ones who have been chosen by God to have His law written, not in stone, but on our hearts. We are the ones who know the prophecies, and that these have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ our Lord. We are the ones who have been given the knowledge of the way of life that transforms us from creatures on earth to citizens of the heavenly Kingdom. The Church is the new Israel; but we must beware, we must be careful not to be like the Jews, who considered themselves more worthy than others because they were the people God had chosen as His own. We must not consider ourselves better than others, but instead see only our own faults – for in this way we will be humble, rather than proud, arrogant, and prone to hating others. We must fast and pray; we must give of ourselves, and from what God has given to us. We must fight against our passions and seek to put in their place the virtues that are pleasing to God. We must, as St. John Chrysostom tells us, be like the Samaritan woman: drawing near to the Lord while being aware of our sins; we must hear what He is saying, and do what He says; and we should bring others to Him, so that they may also hear Him, and follow Him.

Brothers and sisters, let us hear what the Fathers are teaching us. Let us be like the Samaritan woman, and draw near to God, and help others to do so as well by being transformed in thought, word, and deed. Let us worship God and honor Him, and so become citizens of His Kingdom.

Christ is risen!

Monday, May 11, 2009

Rise, Walk, and Sin No More

In the reading today from the holy Gospel according to St. John the Theologian, we hear of how a man who had sought a miracle of healing for a period of thirty-eight years was met by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who restored the paralytic to physical health and strength. If we listen carefully, we will hear two instructions – commands, really – that our Lord gave to the paralyzed man; and we will also discern the deeper impact of being restored to health.

As we consider these things, we need to recognize our own place in the story. When we recognize that this story is as much about us as it is about the man paralyzed for thirty-eight years, we will find ourselves the beneficiaries of the wondrous power and presence of our Lord; and we will hear His commands as applying to us as well. How are we involved in the story? As the man in the Gospel is physically paralyzed and cannot help himself, we are spiritually paralyzed and cannot help ourselves until we have entered the pool touched, not by an angel, but by the Holy Spirit. What pool is this? Why, the baptismal font. There, having our moral infirmities taken away, we are made whole, made clean, and given new life, just as the man who had been paralyzed received through his encounter with the Lord Jesus.

The first command given is this: "Rise, take up your bed, and walk." Although he did not know who it was that gave him this command, the paralyzed man believed, and acted upon his belief. That is to say, he had faith; and by that faith, he ceased to be weak and unable to move. Rather, he could stand, where he could not do so before; and the restoration of his strength was such that he could pick up the bed on which he had suffered, and carry it away. So, too, is given to us the opportunity to overcome the weakness of our will – the defect introduced into our being by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, our first parents. We are to rise once more to the level of having a will in agreement with, and in obedience to, the will of God; and to walk in that strength as we carry the burdens and cares of this life. But to do so, we must believe that this has, indeed, been done for us; and we must put this belief into action, in what we say, in what we do, in how we live.

The second command given is this: "Go, and sin no more, less something worse should come upon us." The Fathers teach us that there is quite often a connection between bodily suffering and sin. It is rare for someone to suffer from an illness or an injury and not to feel the physical pain arising from that illness or injury. Rarer still is the person who is pained in their spirit because of their sins; yet the damage to our souls from our sins can be so great that it can, as the Fathers say, "spill over" and affect our bodies as well. St. John Chrysostom says of the man in the Gospel today that his ailment was the result of his sins; and that he had suffered for his sins for many years. As a result of meeting our Lord, the man had been made whole; and he is told, "sin no more"; a warning that a return to his sin could well result in his paralysis returning to him, or even something worse. It is important for us to recognize that, because we will go to great lengths to relieve physical suffering, but do next to nothing to relieve the sickness and infirmity of our souls wounded by sin, that God may allow us to become ill, to call attention to our need to repent of our sins and to confess them, and to adopt a new way of living. If we do not, if we continue to live in the ways that had wounded us, we may again suffer in this life; and will most certainly suffer without hope of release in the fires of Hell in the age to come.

Finally, there is the impact of the healing upon the man who had been paralyzed. He told everyone who asked him – even those who rebuked him – what the Lord had done for him. So, too, should we always be prepared to tell anyone who asks what the Lord has done for us. Of course, those who knew the man who had been paralyzed would wonder how it was that he had been restored to strength and health, and so would be moved to ask him how such a thing had happened; while those who did not know him, but saw him carrying his bed on the Sabbath day and so rebuked him heard about the coming of the One Who is the Lord of the Sabbath. This means that we must live in such a way that those who know us, and so are aware of our sinful ways, will see us walking in a new way, and in a new strength, and so be moved to ask us how such a thing is possible. We must live according to the will of God, and the way of the Church, even when this brings us into conflict with the law of the land, or the spirit of the age. We must speak up for what is right and true and pleasing to God, even if our culture says that it is right to live contrary to what God has said – and we must be ready to give them an answer that testifies to our faith that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of our lives.

This is no small task; but if we will ask God for the grace and strength to bear witness to His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and to walk in His ways, we will find power from on high to fulfill His commands. We will have the strength and the courage to rise, and to take up our beds, and walk, sinning no more, and telling all of our salvation in the One Who heals us and makes us whole: our Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Myrrh-bearing Women and Salvation

How often do you think about your salvation? Most of us probably don't think about it at all, except perhaps when we're doing our morning or evening prayers, or when we realize we've done something terribly wrong. When we do think about our salvation, it's probably in terms of what we have done; and of what we must do to make up for what we have done – that is to say, what we have done that is wrong, harmful, to ourselves, and to others.

Today we celebrate the myrrh-bearing women, who came to the tomb of our Lord on the morning of the third day after His death. Remember how this is counted: the day our Lord died on the Cross, great and holy Friday, is the first day. The second day, great and holy Saturday, is when His body lay in the tomb, while He Himself descended in hades to destroy the power of death and to set free the souls held captive by death, to lead them up on high. Now it is very early in the morning of the third day – Sunday – today. The women could not come on the second day, as it was the Sabbath, and what they had come to do was considered work – and no one was to work, for that day had been given by God to His people as a day of rest. So it was on the third day that they came, bearing sweet spices, with which they would anoint the Lord's dead body before wrapping Him in a winding sheet, as was the custom of the Jews.

As we celebrate the myrrh-bearing women, we honor the love that brought them out on a mission that was absolutely unnecessary. Why was it unnecessary? The first reason is given to us in the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Mark. Joseph of Arimathea had already wrapped the body of the Lord in fine linen. The second reason should be obvious to us today, although Joseph and the myrrh-bearers, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome did not believe what the Lord had told His disciples – that on the third day He would rise. What need is there to anoint a body and prepare it for burial when He is no longer dead?

So it is also for us. It is far too easy to think that the right thing to do – as the myrrh-bearers had sought to do what was right according to the Law – is to go through all the motions of being Orthodox. We think about how to cross ourselves, and when; when we should make a bow, and when we should make a prostration. We read the labels on foods in the store during fasting seasons, just in case the 17th or 18th or 23rd ingredient is sodium caseinate, which comes from cow's milk, or gelatin, which may be from a cow's hoof. We should be careful about all these things, about every practice we learn in the Church about how to live an Orthodox life. But these things, important as they are, do not bring about the salvation of our souls. These things are the myrrh and sweet spices that we bring – but if we do not do everything for the love of God, and for His glory, than our labors are just as useless as was the effort of the myrrh-bearing women to prepare the body of our Lord for burial. We must instead examine our hearts, and bury every impulse and desire for the things of this world, so that we offer our love to God; and that we also take care to love those who are made in His image, and after His likeness – everyone on the face of the earth. When we find our hearts drawn not to power or pleasure or riches or fame, but instead to love for all, hatred for none, to humility, to patience and forgiveness and charity and worship – then have we done our duty to the Lord, then have we honored Him rightly and in truth.

Brothers and sisters, let us pray asking God for the grace to be anointed by Him with His Holy Spirit, so that we who are the Body of Christ may live in the way that honors Him with our love, and show Him living in our midst, so that those who still dwell in darkness and the shadow of death may come to Him and receive the gift of life eternal in the kingdom of heaven.